You can arrive at the museum either directly from the adjacent central train station, or if already in the city just a ten-minute walk from the historic York Minster. Access throughout is easy and disabled friendly, but upon walking through the entrance it is impossible not to be stunned at the size of this place. Can so much effort really be dedicated to old trains?
We arrived just after opening (10.00-18.00 daily) and already it was atmospherically busy. There were not just gaggles of schoolkids seemingly a little overawed, but both tourists and a surprising number of locals for whom this must be an easy day out on the doorstep.
Picking up a free little pamphlet/map upon arrival, it becomes clear that this isn’t the kind of museum where you follow a set route from entry to end. Instead, it is all about exploring. It quickly became clear why this was the pattern of choice.
The Great Hall
We learned afterward that this immense, high ceilinged and beautiful sky lit hall dated back to 1877 where it was used to service and repair passing locomotives. Badly damaged during a wartime air raid, it has since been epically restored back to its former glory – and where else better to now play home to several dozen glorious trains?
Arranged in a centrical manner mostly all facing into still working and frequently exhibited giant turntable, it is a sight best taken in by immediately climbing up a classic old track bridge. Once again, there is no real order on what route to take or where to look first. On one side there’s a futurist (in a 1970’s kind of way) Japanese Bullet Train, and on another a classic Mallard. Look a little further and there’s possibly the most famous of them all – Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ sitting quite comfortably despite being tiny compared to many of the nearby compatriots.
Usually, we aren’t the people to really take to listening all that much to tours and so forth. But the walks around the exhibits with an older gentleman who seemed able to explain not just the workings, but also snippets of fascinating history about each was enthralling. He was many of what seemed like a small army of approachable staff on hand – who at the end of our stroll we found out are all unpaid volunteers.
It isn’t just a row of exhibits either. What struck us was just as much the little pieces of history dotted almost haphazardly around the main display. There’s everything from row after row of old-time advertising boards through to original uniforms, flags, signals signs and everything in between. An enthusiast could spend hours in this hall alone – one that truly does deserve the ‘Great’ monicker.
The Rest Of The Collection
Strolling through the rest of the museum becomes seriously heady. There’s room after room of further exhibits and one, in particular, stood out. I forget the name, it was long and linear and jam-packed with classic railway heritage. Dozens upon dozens of cases packed near claustrophobically tight together. Looking at the sign near the entrance it explained that throughout the entire museum, there was only space to exhibit 0.5% of the total collection. The rest is in storage or loaned across the world.
Not only this, but they have one of the greatest collections of paper, photography and material collections on the planet. It is understandably of interest to academics from near and far, with a dedicated (appointment only) archive center. Of personal interest were the galleries on a mezzanine level that runs across most of the main parts of the museum. Endless galleries of not just oil paintings but also posters and photography that brought a real sense of the social history of railways.
Needing a little fresh air, and frankly, a little overwhelmed at the size and scope of this museum, we then went outside to the tracks. Unfortunately, we had missed it this day, but there are opportunities to take a short ride up and down a track on a real locomotive. Engineering enthusiasts will be delighted to hear that it turned out that there was another enormous hall dedicated seemingly to the infrastructure and workings of railways through time!
One thing that ought to also be mentioned is that this is not a museum for gaping and gawking. On the majority of the central exhibits, you can walk through certain sections. Ever wondered what the inside of a royal carriage looked like? Why not check out an original! You can explore the front of the engines themselves, and even take tea just like a first class passenger would have enjoyed in the 1920’s!
As far as museums go, this is without question one of the most memorable I have ever visited. It is suitable for all ages – indeed, the kids and retirees seemed to be especially enthralled! There are all the amenities that would be expected from a world-class destination, a smart yet unobtrusive memorabilia/replica store and several cafes (and apparently one of the best restaurants in town).
Upon leaving we decided to hop on the complimentary mini road train for a genteel ride back into the city proper. What a place, an astonishing museum in a city with so much else to explore as well. Five stars in every single way imaginable.